Opening of rockfish season is cause for anglers' glee Timing of start should make for good year


"Hooray, hooray, the first of May, and outdoor sex begins today!"

The above is a little fishing ditty sung this time of year, especially when the opening of the trophy season for striped bass, or rockfish, coincides with the beginning of the month.

Today marks the beginning of the 1992 season, and I'm predicting a very good one for anglers.

Last year was the first for a trophy season since the striped bass moratorium was lifted. We started the 1991 season later in the month. However, the rockfish had already spawned and returned to the ocean before we could legally fish for them. Only 140 trophy rockfish -- over 36 inches -- were checked in.

The state Department of Natural Resources believes 350 to 400 were caught, but not checked in because of confusing instructions. Even 400 would be a drop in the bucket, considering that some 100,000 Maryland anglers chase rockfish.

Most rockfish spawn and return to the ocean before our season opens, even when it starts May 1. Spawning often occurs around Easter, especially in the middle and lower Chesapeake Bay.

The rockfish have a predetermined window when they will spawn based upon the "photo period," or number of minutes of light during the day. They also have a preferred water temperature. When the water temperature is just right during the designated photo period -- they do it!

This year, Easter was late and the cold wet spring has further delayed spawning. Therefore, anglers have an excellent opportunity to catch a trophy rockfish, perhaps even a new state record.

However, the cooler weather also works against the angler. Fish are coldblooded critters; therefore, the warmer the water, the faster their metabolism and the more often they feed. The final result will mean more big fish around, but fewer overall strikes. In a few weeks the water will warm up and you will catch more fish, but find fewer keepers.

Catching a trophy rockfish is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. The fish travel alone instead of in schools, and they can be at any depth, from right on the surface to 20 feet or deeper. I suggest you put some good baits in the right areas and invest a few hours.

Good baits are big spoons and big bucktails. The stripers feed on big menhaden and other large bait-fish this time of year. The successful angler uses a lure similar in size to its food. I prefer 9/0 Crippled Alewive spoons. I also use 11/0 Crippled Alewives, No. 19 and No. 21 Tony Accetta Pet spoons, big Huntington Drone spoons, No. 11 Cather spoons and 8/0 plus-size white and yellow bucktails.

Where do you find a trophy rockfish? They can be anywhere. I prefer deep water and along channel edges. And there are a couple special places I want to visit when the tide gets right.

Be sure to take a camera. You will catch many more undersized than legal rockfish. And no matter what size they are, they are all beautiful.

Some of my customers keep very few fish. They catch, photograph and release. If you don't really want a big, dead rockfish, don't kill it.

Handling a big rockfish can be tricky. Bring the fish into the boat in a big landing net. Once in the boat throw a wet towel over its eyes and it will calm down.

Ease the hook out as gently as possible. Lift the fish by putting one hand in its mouth and the other hand under its stomach. Let someone get a quick picture and then either put it over the side or into the fish box. If the fish is to be kept, you should tag it as soon as you put the fish into the box.

And now for the bad news. As of this writing, I have yet to hear of a bluefish caught in the Maryland portion of the bay. I'm certain there are a few out there, but probably not many. Maybe when the water warms up a bit. There's plenty of bait in the bay for them to feed on.

Bob Spore is a Coast Guard-licensed charter boat captain from Pasadena. His Outdoors column appears every Friday in The Anne Arundel County Sun.

Striped bass by the book

Here are rules for the trophy striped bass season:

* The season runs through May 31.

* All anglers must have a striped bass permit and tag, available free at most tackle shops.

* Fishing is permitted south of the Bay Bridge.

* Only artificial lures may be used.

* All striped bass keepers must be at least 36 inches overall.

* Legal keepers must be taken to a tackle shop designated as a DNR check-in station.

* Anglers are permitted one trophy rockfish for the season.

* Charter boat captains will provide permits and tags for their customers.

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